In the July 2015 issue of AccessWorld, we took a look at the audio description feature that had just recently been added to many shows in the Netflix lineup. Audio description is an additional audio track that describes visual and unspoken aspects of a movie or TV show. Audio description is provided primarily so that people with visual impairments can gain a better understanding of what is going on onscreen.
When it first launched, some subscribers had difficulty getting the audio description feature to work on their various devices, but Netflix quickly worked to solve all existing problems. When that July 2015 AccessWorld article was written, there were 87 shows on Netflix containing audio description.
One year later, we took a look at how far Netflix had come with implementation of audio description on their network. The number of programs containing an audio description track had jumped from 87 to over 150, and accessibility to the service had improved dramatically across all devices used by the blind community. Today, according to the list available from the American Council of the Blind's Audio Description Project, there are currently around 445 audio-described programs on Netflix.
Shortly after Netflix began offering audio-described content, Apple started offering movies with audio description in the iTunes Store. Along with the ability to filter search results in order to only see content with audio descriptions, iTunes makes it quite easy to determine whether a movie includes an audio description track by simply looking at the details of the movie provided in the Store, just like you would to see if a show had closed captioning.
With Netflix and Apple both providing audio-described content with their movies, the blind community began to ask other providers when they planned to do likewise. The most recent content provider to step up to the plate has been Amazon.
On June 9 of this year, the American Council of the Blind and Amazon announced that Amazon Prime was offering 117 movies and 10 TV series with audio description. The ACB's Audio Description Project (ADP) now links to a page on Amazon that shows all content with audio description. As of this writing, there are 133 titles available. Many are free with your Prime membership, while others must be rented or purchased. Titles are sorted by heading for easy navigation with a screen reader, and links are provided to watch programs, rent or purchase them, or add them to a watch list for later viewing. The ADP also offers its own page with an alphabetized listing of Amazon programs with audio description.
How to Access Audio-Described Content On Amazon Prime
For this article, I tested one documentary, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, available to watch for free with my Amazon Prime subscription. I tested Amazon Prime's audio description feature using a Windows 10 computer running JAWS version 18 and the latest version of the Firefox browser, a Mac running Safari, and an iPhone 6 running the latest version of iOS 10. I did not test the feature using an Amazon tablet, or an Android device, and audio description is not yet available on the Apple TV, according to the information found on ADP's Amazon page.
Accessing Amazon Prime's Audio-Described Content On a Windows 10 PC
After pressing Enter on the link found in the title of my documentary, I was easily able to find controls to resume watching the program (I had been watching it earlier) or start from the beginning. Try as I might, after I began playing the program, I was unable to get to the screen I needed to enable audio description. ADP's Amazon page states that a sighted person must enable this feature once, but that it will stay enabled thereafter. I did not ask my sighted wife to enable the feature for me. I will wait until I can turn on audio description independently before I watch audio-described Amazon content on my PC.
Accessing Amazon Prime's Audio-Described Content On a Mac
Unfortunately, I had no success accessing audio description on my Mac, either. After I pressed Enter on the title of the documentary, I repeatedly got stuck in a dialog box that kept popping up wanting me to give the program a star rating. I could not seem to get past this dialog in order to start playing the program.
Accessing Amazon Prime's Audio-Described Content On iOS 10
Using the free Amazon Prime Video app on my iPhone, I did a search for the title of my documentary. After opening the details page of the program, I was again given the chance to resume watching the program, or start from the beginning. Unfortunately, as was the case with the two other devices I tested, I was unable to determine whether the program was audio-described from reading any of the detailed information available from this page. Because I had enabled audio description on my iPhone previously, the show, complete with audio description track, began playing as soon as I activated the control to begin watching the program from the beginning. When the program began, my phone went into landscape mode. Since I did not quickly begin examining the screen, the video controls disappeared. I had to double-tap the "video" label to get them back. I was able to then swipe right to the "audio and subtitles" option, which stopped playback of the program. "English [Audio Description]" was already selected for me, but I could have easily selected this option had it not already been enabled. Closing this menu of options, or making a selection resumes playback of the program, and closes the menu.
I found the process of enabling audio description and watching content on my iPhone to be quite straightforward. This is how I will watch Amazon Prime's audio-described content for the foreseeable future.
The Bottom Line
Two years ago, there were no mainstream content providers of television programs and movies that offered audio-described content for people with visual impairments through their online streaming services. Today, Netflix, iTunes, and now Amazon Prime offer this feature. Currently, iTunes is the only service that makes it easy to determine whether or not an audio description track is available in a program simply by looking at the details page of the movie or TV show in question. All of the services do provide access to a list of audio-described content on their site by either allowing for the filtering of search results to show audio-described content, and/or providing a list of that content somewhere on their site.
Although I was unable to access audio description on my PC or Mac, I was able to obtain the content on my iPhone. I would certainly like to see better accessibility across all of my devices, but I consider this a really good start.
If Amazon continues to add audio-described content to their list of programs on a regular basis, and improve accessibility across all devices, blind people will have yet another excellent source of television programs and movies with audio description tracks readily available and easily accessible.
We can only hope that services like Hulu will feel increasing pressure to add audio description to their program lineup. People with visual impairments, as much as they can, should be encouraged to subscribe to services that offer audio-described content, and encourage others to do so. Also, positive comments on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter will encourage companies like Amazon to continue offering the content that many in the visual impairment community have been requesting for so long.
Amazon Prime costs $99 per year. You can also pay $10.99 per month, or subscribe to the video only plan for $8.99 per month. Many TV shows and movies are available for free with your membership; other programs can be rented or purchased.
The Amazon Prime Video app for iOS is free, and requires that you sign into your Amazon Prime account.
Audio description must be enabled initially when any new device is used to play Amazon Prime's video content, but the setting is remembered on each device the next time you play content.